Cafe Society

Latin Lovers

I'd thought that I would never find authentic--much less great--Mexican food in this town. I'd worried that manana would never come.

Now, finally, it's here--by way of California.
Sergio and Alicia Hernandez were running two successful restaurants in predominantly Hispanic areas of that state when their tortilla purveyor told them that not only was Denver growing, it was pitifully short on decent Latin American eats.

So the Hernandezes sold one of their places and last November opened El Azteca, a tiny eatery in an old Taco House on South Federal Boulevard. The atmosphere is still fast-food--there's no table service, no alcohol, and you have to walk outside to get to the bathrooms--but the food is the real thing.

Their Denver outpost duplicates the Hernandezes' winning mix of rotisserie chicken and Mexican fare. "Rotisserie chicken is much more popular on the West Coast than it is here," says Jorge Sanchez, one of the Hernandezes' sons who, along with the rest of the family, helps out at El Azteca. "But I can't figure out why there are so many ingredients from Mexican cooking that aren't being used here."

Those ingredients are what set El Azteca a world apart from other local Mexican joints. Except for the rotisserie chicken, the Hernandezes don't appear to offer much more than the typical taco-burrito-enchilada lineup. But it's what they add to these standard offerings that makes the difference.

For example, El Azteca's green chile--a clean-tasting, semi-chunky version that injects fresh cilantro and oregano into a chicken-stock base--also contains epazote, an herb I've only encountered in Denver in the gardens of enlightened folk. In Mexico, however, epazote (pronounced "epa-zoe-tay") grows wild. The natives frequently put it in bean dishes because of its ability to reduce gas; it also makes an unusual tea. But Mexican cooks use epazote mostly because the herb's strong, pungent taste deepens the other flavors in a dish. El Azteca's combo plate ($4.99), a superb bargain of a meal, came adorned--not smothered into oblivion--by that delicious green chile, and the epazote gave added oomph to all of the items it touched. Those included a refried-bean-filled enchilada, a marvel of a taco and a chile relleno that featured a sturdy (rather than soggy and limp) Anaheim oozing with cheese and encased in a spongy batter. For the taco, a corn tortilla had been folded over small pieces of carne asada, then deep-fried--creating a bubbly pocket that trapped the meat's seasonings in every nook and cranny.

The carne asada plate ($4.69) allowed further study of El Azteca's roasted beef. The meat--sirloin tips, Sanchez proudly points out--had been rubbed with an aromatic combination of ground chiles and oregano before being slow-roasted, which created a tangy crust of spices over the tender tips. The plate also included a heap of soft rice, even softer refried beans and a small bowl of the Hernandezes' distinctive salsa, which has a sweetness, courtesy of roasted tomatoes, that works well with the serrano chiles. Further proof that they know how to layer flavors came in the Hawaiian torta ($2.69), which sounded like a simple sandwich but turned out to be a mammoth pile of ham, cheese, pineapple, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce and tomato on a lightly toasted roll. The delectable sandwich was more than a meal--but we still had to give El Azteca's specialty a try.

Sanchez tries to downplay the rotisserie chicken, claiming it's not as good as the bird they serve in California because here they have to cook with an electric oven. "It's much juicier and gets a better skin on it with gas," he says. But it's impossible to imagine that any bird could be better than the chicken El Azteca pulled out of its electric oven ($3.99 for a half). Marinated overnight in pineapple and lemon juices and then generously rubbed with "secret seasonings"--Sanchez will admit only to cilantro and salt--the chicken was crisp-skinned and twice as juicy as any other bird I've tried in this city.

We ended our exemplary meal with a slice of the Hernandezes' homemade, cream-cheese-heavy cheesecake ($1.50), made special by cinnamon in the crust, and thanked the Aztecan gods for sending this family our way.

And just think--Denver only gets to enjoy a portion of what the Hernandezes could offer in a bigger space. Sanchez says the family hopes to someday move to a bigger building, where they can offer a sit-down format--and even more food choices. "My stepfather is Cuban," he says, "and he'd like to do some dishes from there. And my mother has all these great recipes for shrimp and other seafood and menudo. But we just don't have the room for those now."

Space is not a problem at another excellent Latin restaurant, the two-and-a-half-year-old Rincon Tropical. At least, not anymore. This El Salvadoran spot, overseen by proprietors Sylvia and Jose Calderon, once sat on First Avenue and had only four tables. Now it's on East Colfax and boasts about twenty tables, along with a spacious area filled with pool tables. Even so, on weekends the place is packed with diners longing to get a taste of what Sylvia calls "everyday" Salvadoran meals.

I could eat these every day, no problem. The Calderons came to Denver from El Salvador in 1981 and worked their way through several area restaurants, including Josephina's and Lakewood Country Club, before opening their own place. Their considerable cooking experience helps make their "everyday" dishes something special, particularly when those dishes feature sauces.

The pan con pavo ($4.50), for example, used a strong tomato sauce to tie together an exotic hoagie of French bread, radishes, chicken, pork and watercress. The house specialty, cielo, mar y tierra ($12.75), sort of a surf and turf plus fowl, brought another wonderful sauce: a butter-touched, creamy tomato concoction strewn with onions. It went well with slices of garlicky French bread, the Calderons' homemade, pancake-thick corn tortillas or the side of a finger; the sauce was so heavenly, it would have made any meat taste good. The chewy but tasty flank steak, however, proved worthy of its blanket, as did the juicy chicken leg and shrimp. A mound of slaw drenched with lime juice and sprinkled with oregano finished off the plate. Yet another wonderful sauce--a reduction of beef stock with vegetables--coated the unbelievably tender beef and potatoes in the stewlike carne guisada ($6.75).

The Calderons' kitchen expertise shows in the non-sauced items, too. The fried plantains ($5.75) paired perfectly cooked, soft-centered banana quarters with refried beans and soured cream. The plantain leaves were pressed into service for the tamales ($1.50 each), which packed shredded chicken and green olives into sponges of corn masa. And the sopa de mariscos ($8), a concentrated, savory soup, was teeming with shrimp, crab shells, squid and fish. Unfortunately, the unidentifiable swimmer was rife with bones--one of our few complaints with Rincon Tropical.

The other concerns its service. Since only two other tables were occupied during our visit, there was no excuse for the lack of attention paid to us. The food is cooked to order by the Calderons, so we were prepared to wait for our meals--but our drinks were never replenished, we had to bus our own empty plates in order to get any elbow room, and the check took so long that we finally had to walk over to the waitress at the cash register to get it.

But I'd go a lot farther than Rincon Tropical's cash register--and sit in surroundings a lot smaller than those at El Azteca--for meals this good. These are two Latins I love.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner